In Death Valley: Desolation Canyon & Mesquite Dunes - Looking Back With 2020 Vision, Part I - CycleBlaze

January 12, 2020

In Death Valley: Desolation Canyon & Mesquite Dunes

Our plan for the day is to drive a ways out Scotty’s Castle Road and bike up the road from there.  We wouldn’t go all the way to the pass and state line this time, because we couldn’t even if we wanted to - the upper end of the road has been closed since 2015 when it washed out in a major storm and isn’t expected to reopen until next year.  The road is open as far as Ubehebe Crater though, so we’ll use that as a target.

When I step out of the room to get coffee though, I get a bracing slap to the face.  It’s noticeably colder this morning, there’s a bit of wind, and the air has a real bite to it.  With our recent cold descents still fresh in our minds, we use the other think that we still have coming for the day and decide that this would be an excellent time to take a hike instead.  We stare at the park brochures and settle on three short hikes: Desolation Canyon, Gower’s Gulch, and then the sand dunes at the end of the day.  

We hop into the Whale and drive east toward Furnace Creek, a ride that’s getting quite familiar to us by now.  We turn off at Badwater Road, and drive up the short gravel access road to Desolation Canyon, a few miles before Artists Drive.

Desolation Canyon

The Desolation Canyon hike is described in the literature as a 3.8 mile round trip up the canyon.  There’s no trail; just follow the course of the canyon and be prepared for a bit of rock scrambling.  Expect to see colorful rock formations similar to what can be seen along Artists Drive.

The description is accurate.  There is a bit of rock scrambling, although for the most part it’s an easy walk up the canyon, with never a question about the course to follow.  Along the way, there are a number of smaller side canyons slipping in that you can wander into for a short exploration until they inevitably dead end at a steep canyon wall.

It’s very dry, rocky land with virtually no vegetation.  Here and there you’ll see a lone desert holly plant, but I can’t imagine how they last for long.  It looks like a good storm would flash flood the canyon and scour them out.

And, the statement that we’ll see colors similar to Artists Drive is accurate.   Turquoise hued cliffs greet us as we round bends, invariably taking our breath away.  The surprise though is what the literature didn’t mention - it’s similar to the formations around Artists Drive, because these are the exact same formations.  At the high point of our hike, I’m startled to look down and see Artists Drive snaking through a gap directly below us.  It looks like with a bit more scrambling and more time we could drop down to Artists Drive easily enough and walk back that way.

And, it’s pretty secluded, drawing far fewer explorers than the better known and more accessible Gower’s Gulch hike (which, if you continue it far enough, would take you up to Zabrieski Point).  We only see two individuals on the way up, both of whom are happy to pause for a longer chat.  A surprisingly sociable outing. 

And, a longer hike than we were expecting, time wise.  By the time we get back to the car, it’s clear that Gower’s Gulch is out for today.  It’s our final chance to walk out to the dunes, and that’s the priority.  

At the entrance to Desolation Canyon, which opens up behind our backs in this view. Just beyond that colorful ridge is Gower’s Gulch and Zabrieski Point.
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In Desolation Canyon
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It’s dry now, but I wouldn’t want to be here after a storm. Not many prospects for plant life either.
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A bit of rock scrambling is required. This is the worst of it. Rachael is trapped halfway up and needs me to take the rucksack to free up her other hand. She wishes I wouldn’t stop for a photo first, but it can’t be helped of course.
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Jen GrumbyThis is a great photo of you, Rachael! You look like a natural on that rock.

Watch out, Alex Honnold!
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8 hours ago
In Desolation Canyon
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In Desolation Canyon
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Here’s what the blue looks like up close. Flaky, and the beauty is only skin deep.
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It’s a surprisingly sociable hike. This interesting walker is very well traveled, is bound for Macedonia this spring, and tries to interest us in Armenia. We’ll have to take a look.
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In Desolation Canyon
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In Desolation Canyon
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Another sociable soloist. Chris, from Vermont, is on a road trip to escape the bitter winter back home. He also bikes a bit and has climbed Mount Lemmon, the outstanding climb that starts right outside of Tucson.
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While Chris and I chat, Rachael scrambles a bit higher and calls down that I should come up too. I do, and go a bit beyond - up that short path angling up to the left, to the viewpoint straight down into a canyon 200’ below. A steeper and scarier walk than it looks like from here.
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Yes, it’s all totally amazing. Just look over there. What a great hike!
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Looking down from the high point of our hike, we can see Artists Drive below us snaking through the ridges.
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On the way out again. Great both ways.
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We’re just coming to the worst of the scrambles, the one Rachael was trapped on above. It’s worse and scarier going this way of course, because you can’t see your footing. We’re not goat-like, and it’s takes us awhile.
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The scramble behind us now, Rachael doesn’t need me any more and races on ahead. Company with your spouse is fine as far as that goes, but getting close to lunch back in the car is finer. She’s starving!
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Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

Finally, on our last day here, we make it out to the dunes.  And a good thing - I’ve been saying every day that we have to go out there before we leave, and it would kill me if we didn’t fit it in because of poor planning.

We have probably picked the poorest day for it though.  The sky has turned overcast during the day, so we won’t see many of the famously striking shadow effects the dunes are best known for, and aren’t likely to see much of a sunset either.  If we’d gotten our act together, we should have come out here on our first or second night here when the sky was clear and we could have seen a glorious full moon rise over the wall of the canyon.  Next time.

Still, it’s an awesome experience walking the dunes; and the further you get from the parking lot the better it gets.  Fewer people, fewer footprints in the sand.  By the time we turn back there are only a few other folks out here, mostly scattered and crowning neighboring dunes.  And, for perhaps ten minutes, the sun drops below the clouds and illuminates the dunes.  It’s amazing.

In the dunes. Here and there there are these bald, scabby spots.
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It’s interesting navigating the dunes. Pick one, walk the crest, and then look around at the top to plot the next leg. We’re working our way out to the highest dune in a very indirect route, gradually gaining elevation.
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Looking back toward the Panamint Range.
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Jen GrumbyThat looks like the spine of a sleeping creature!
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7 hours ago
Atop the highest dune, emptying the sand from our shoes and speculating on whether the sun will break through. We’re about two miles from the car here, and it’s time to start working our way back.
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The sun does break through a bit, and creates a diffuse glow as it shines through dust kicked up by traffic on the road into Mosaic Canyon.
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The sun breaks through.
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Looking northeast toward the base of the Grapevine Mountains, generally in the direction we rode yesterday climbing Daylight Pass.
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The high point of the dunes, with Corkscrew Peak behind it. The high point, now about a mile off, is where the shot was taken of Rachael emptying sand from her shoes.
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Big man in the dunes.
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Jen GrumbyAlmost tall enough to reach over and tap Small Sitting Man on the shoulder!
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7 hours ago
Scott AndersonTo Jen GrumbyYou know, I thought about walking down dune a bit further to line up better, but this was far enough. Pretty steep slope.
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7 hours ago
More of the same. Awesome.
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Life in the dunes. Actually, there’s a fair amount of it out here, including snakes. The literature warns to look for animal tracks in the morning before they’re blown away, and to watch out for sidewinder rattlesnakes if you’re out after sunset in warmer months than this. We hope.
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The dunes fall into shadows as the sun starts dropping beneath the Panamint Range.
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We end up walking four miles, which is a lot of climbing and descending in the sand. And a lot of sand to accumulate in the shoes. Like this couple, we finally took our shoes off and walked barefoot until it got too cold. Fortunately, no sidewinders are out to get caught between our toes.
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In the dunes, with a modest but lovely sunset.
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Not brilliant, but a nice rosy glow ends another wonderful day in the desert.
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Carolyn van HoeveWhat an incredible landscape with wonderful photos and videos. It doesn't look like a bad transition from Spain. If only there were some Spanish villages to be had along the way.
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1 week ago
Scott AndersonTo Carolyn van HoeveIt’s been a pretty great antidote for missing Spain, alright. The American Southwest is pretty astonishing country too, and has other benefits - Like dinner at 5 if you want it.
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6 days ago